Heads up, this is going to be a colossal post so bookmark it until you can grab a cold one, a hot one, or a frappe and curl up with it. I have a lot of thoughts on what I’m about to share today. This post isn’t for you (really), it’s for me. I’m writing this out because I’ve already had to explain this four times to four different people and every time I gain a little more clarity on it. They are powerful notions relating to God, creativity, ideas, and the ether between them. This is not the result of staring at a keyboard for a few hours and ‘knocking out a post’. No, instead, this monster is the result of several years of attempting to unlock the secret of what it means to create freely. Several years of praying for change and ‘aren’t-Christians-supposed-to-be-the-freest-to-create-because-we-know-the-Creator?’ But felt far more afraid than free.
But what do I mean by free?
In writing, there are objectives: guest post on someone’s blog, finish a draft, find a critique partner, find an agent, get published, make money, be ‘successful’; all so that you can quit your day job and spend more time (presumably) doing what you love: writing. And this laundry list of ambition changes slightly depending on the craft. But the road to those ambitions is mined with lies that cripple artists. They whisper that they aren’t enough, that no-one cares, or simply by inserting the words ‘you won’t’ in front of every one of their creative ambitions. This leaves the creative soul trapped between the crushing expectations of themselves and others, the lies that tell them those expectations will only end in failure, and their own innate desire to make stuff. It sucks. Creating freely is the antithesis of that suck.
Train One: Change
Like most Christians, I spend a lot of time wishing I was different. I wish I was more of something, or less of something else. More loving, less prone to lust. More prayerful, less distracted. More holy, less selfish.
I was sitting by a klong (canal) near our house thinking about how badly I needed to change. Could I create additional schedules and spreadsheets to allay wasting time? Do I enforce tighter boundaries to assure focus? Or do I just beat myself up for the garbage I do, the virtue I don’t, and my inability to self-manage? Conclusion: no amount of self-inflicted pain can guarantee success. Corollary: I need change in places I can’t reach. This, as you can imagine, is frustrating. I’m at an impasse against my most perfect foil: myself.
But isn’t that so boringly Christian of me? To need change? Think about it. We always want change. We chase it. We crave it. We obsess over it. We write books about it. Lots of books. So many books. All the books. All for ‘impossible change’.
But I don’t think books (or blogs for that matter) is what we need more of. I say this because books and blogs will do no better at reaching the inner parts of a man than the man himself. In different words, a man should be more capable of brushing his own teeth than anyone else. But from my own life, I’ve found that this is not the case. I’m out of toothpaste and my toothbrush just fell in the toilet.
I think what we need is more presence. Specifically, we need the presence of God in our lives to change us in all the ways we can’t.
Now as they observed the confidence of Peter and John and understood that they were uneducated and untrained men, they were amazed, and began to recognize them as having been with Jesus. – Acts 4:13, NASB
The disciples spent time with Jesus, and that alone changed them in impossible ways. Jesus is the catalyst: He changes things without being changed Himself. He can reach. After all, teeth were His idea. So the more time I spend with Jesus, the more I experience this impossible change. I’m not sure how much presence is enough ‘for best results’ (twice daily, before and after meals?), but I don’t care because I personally just put a new price on the presence of God. My realization for how badly I need change compels me to seek His presence – to value it more highly than other things. Every activity is filtered through this question of how much change I want: is it more valuable for me to spend time in the presence of God, or not? Change is now a form of currency that I can choose to collect on or ignore.
Train Two: Creativity
Concurrently with this notion for change, was this welling desire to ‘crack the code’ on creativity. As a Christian, I have access to an infinite God, of infinite creativity, across all of time and space…and yet? I would often exist with my keyboard, camera, pencil (I started drawing fantasy maps for a story I’m working on), or poetry (I needed something to alliterate with pencil) terrified. And as every American Christian has heard seventeen zillion times in their lives “perfect love casts out fear” (1 John 4:18). So what the heaven was I missing? Why was I still scared? Where was my confidence? Isn’t my ‘muse’ (Holy Spirit) the kindest? Doesn’t He have the best ideas? If so…where were they?
I should be able to create freely. Without blocks and without fear. I wanted to sit behind a blog post and not be afraid of reader response. I wanted to take pictures because I love taking pictures and not be thinking about whether or not it will do well on Shutterstock. I want to write a killer middle grade epic-fantasy novel with steampunk elements and lots and lots of really cool maps because I would absolutely love that book and not because I think it will ‘do well’ in the hands of agents and publishers. But I couldn’t stop thinking about those end-game objectives. I like to think of myself as living intentionally. I do things on purpose and with copious amounts of thought (sometimes too much). But this usually useful attribute of mine was killing me here. Thinking about the end-game assured me I was never wasting time, but at the expense of paralyzing my creativity by fueling the fear I wasn’t good enough.
Before God, I think I saw my creativity the same way the driver on a road trip views a passenger who has to stop for a bathroom: it’s understood you’re created that way, but it’s inconveniencing the journey. As if God is saying “C’MON!! You have to write AGAIN!?? We just stopped thirty minutes ago!” I knew it wasn’t sin, but it felt annoying to hold something (creativity) within myself ‘distracting’ me from my ‘holier’ goals.
ANYONE ELSE OUT THERE FEEL ME ON THIS!??
Of course you do. I’ve seen “finally got the courage to paint today” or memes that describe a writer as having a bipolar sense of self swinging between “I’m a genius” to “I should never write again.” I’m sure other mediums have similar echoes (and memes). So I’m thinking about this, learning language, change, and how on earth to balance it all while on a train (appropriately to the title of the article).
On the ride, I finished what I believe to be one of the most insightful books on creativity I have ever read: BIG MAGIC by Elizabeth Gilbert. Before you rush off to Amazon you need to know that her book is out there. I mean really out there. It’s vulgar in places, trippy in others, and it’s one of the weirdest books I’ve ever read. However, it’s also one of the most useful. Read at your own risk, but I highly recommend it (there’s an interesting correlation there…).
In her book, Liz (heh…no way am I typing ‘Elizabeth’ for the rest of this piece. Besides, she seems super cool and I don’t think she’ll mind) introduces the concept that ideas are more akin to house elves than they are the products of serendipitously firing neurons. She goes on for awhile before leveling with the reader that this might just be a ‘delusion’, but that we all will choose our own flavor of delusion in the end.
To her, these house elf “ideas” bounce around (apparate?) until they find a likely candidate (creative soul) to bring them into the world. This, according to her, is their chief end in the universe: be made. So I’m sitting there, on the train, thinking two things: 1) This lady is totally nuts, and 2) This lady is totally making way more sense than I feel comfortable with because her theory kinda sorta fits the data perfectly.
I’ve seen God do way too much in my life for me to question His very existence from a creativity book. That’s not an issue for me. Besides, Liz never tries to make the argument that her way is absolutely right and anyone who disagrees is a moron. No. She simply states her belief knowing full well that it sounds a bit delusional (her words). She’s cool with that. She’s also cool with churning out inordinate amounts of creativity and writing best-sellers. So delusion or not, I have to respect the fact she’s on to something.
At this point I’m still on the train, still holding the book, and still listening to the periodic ‘click-clack’ of the train (track? Read it out loud :). I put the book down, and start organizing my thoughts “okay…what happens if you filter everything she said through the lens of Christianity?” First, the idea of individually acting house elf ideas goes away. Then I had this thought:
Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. – Philippians 4:8
…applies to ideas before they are made?
So ideas move from de-centralized individually acting free agents (read: house elves) to originating from a single (centralized) Creator. We also implicitly gain some means to filter ‘good’ ideas away from ‘bad’ ones. But what does that make ideas?
Every good thing given and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shifting shadow. -James 1:17
Ideas are gifts! Gifts sent to the DIY’ers of the world (creatives) in the form of parts, a couple sentences of instruction (God knows we don’t read them anyway), and a note that says ‘thought you’d like this’!
And the purpose of that gift? Be made. And if a creative doesn’t want to make it? He lovingly sends it to someone else – and creativity suddenly finds itself flowing with the same diction as banners, swords, and mantles. What I mean by that is we talk about ‘she really carries the banner of joy in her family’, or ‘she picks up the sword of injustice against human trafficking’, or ‘he has a mantle of leadership on his life’…but why not look at creativity the same way as joy, trafficking, or leadership? Are not powerful leaders of movements simply humble souls who asked God for a banner that no one else wanted to carry? I think creative ideas aren’t under a banner, I think individual ideas are banners, swords, and mantles themselves. It’s just about seeing it slightly differently.
Here it comes, a beautiful collision
Back to the train. At this point I’ve come to this conclusion that creative ideas are gifts lovingly sent from a God that wants them to be realized. Some of these are simply creative whims, while others are best-selling novels. But the goal of each of them is simple: interact with us, the creation. Play. God wants to play. In a sense, He’s a little boy standing outside my house with a tennis ball and gently taps my window with an idea.
Didn’t I need – desperately – the presence of God in my life? Haven’t I recognized I have gunk in my heart that I am hopeless to reach? Does God keep a spare toothbrush? I don’t know. But I’m busting it to go outside and find out. The implications of this perspective is that the skills we develop in our craft become the light-up shoes on the basketball court, the new action figure in our army, or the ‘mom-I-gotta-go-to-my-friends-house-RIGHT-NOW-because-I-HAVE-to-show-him-this-secret-room-in-our-video-game’ reason. The throne room becomes our play room. Surprised? Well, what on earth did you expect it to look like? The DMV? No. It’s a place where God pulls out the finger-paints, tell his kids to ‘go nuts’, and jumps in the fray with them like a dad on a vacay. How cool is that? Besides, I don’t want to be ‘an adult of God’! I’m not called that anyway. I want to be a child of God. Children use their imagination. Children are cool. Children don’t hold the nuances of their theology so tightly that a nudge from their Father can’t unseat it.
The change that I’m longing for is found while playing with Jesus. The goals of creativity like publication, gaining subscribers, finding an agent, selling a photo, etc. all fade when the goal of being changed into the image of Christ becomes the goal and creativity the means. I want that more than anything. To use Liz’s analogy, it’s a Bugs Bunny move.
Remember that scene with he, Daffy and Elmer Fudd?
Daffy and Bugs were playing a game: Daffy says ‘rabbit season’, Bugs says ‘duck season’, and around and around they go. But Bugs changes the game. He breaks the “rules” and Daffy ends up with a spinning beak. I changed the goal of my creativity from writer-season to hanging out with Jesus. This makes getting rejected by an agent, or low engagement numbers (subscribers, readers, views, listens, etc.), or poor sales not a big deal because those objectives are no longer the goal. In fact, failure is just an invitation to spend more time with God gaining more of the change we want while trying again. The questions to work on a blog post, novel, painting, dance, piece of wood, craft, etc. are no longer bound to a chain of lies and expectation. And what do we call things that aren’t bound? We call them Free.
Okay, but really
How? What does it look like? For me? Right now?
My heart is simply wondering when I can next play with Jesus. Before I sit down to create (anything) I pray: “Lord, will you play with me?” Knowing full well He knows how much I need Him, how much change I need from Him, and just how badly He wants to play with me too.
I’m not really sure what a postscript is technically for (I’ll Google it here in a minute), but I wanted to make a note (to myself) that I’ve been super close to this idea before – multiple times (see here, and here, and here, and here). But I don’t think any of those realizations are as complete as this one. Each of those ideas are, I think, close to one train or the other, but none of them tie creativity as means for required change as an activity that God enjoys, and even gets excited about. Part 2 of the ‘How I’m Ending Creative Anxiety” series got really, really close, but never quite all the way there because it never provided the external motivation of required change.
Still, the links I mentioned in the previous paragraph might serve as a sort of ‘map’ I’ve followed to arrive at this place. I think I needed each one (and many others, no doubt) to even get here. Such is the nature of the journey. Thank you for joining me on it.
Can you add a P.S. after a Postscript? Anyways, if you liked this, please share it. I’d like to turn this site into a business one day, and people have to know I exist before that can happen.